Why My Mother’s Immigration to the United States Still Matters Today

On November 8, she finally arrived on the shores of a new country, on a new continent. It had been a long boat trip, full of unknown people and places. Prior to the voyage, she had set eyes on the sea only from a far distance, from atop the highest mountain of her village.

Although only a young teen, setting off without her parents and siblings for an unfamiliar place whose language and culture she did not understand somehow was not daunting. After all, she had left home to escape the devastating consequences of war that had marked too much of her young life. Disruption and separation had become commonplace. By age 6, she had watched her mother don the black clothes of bereavement to mourn her father, whose death was reported by men returning from combat. As she and her family tried to adapt to his loss, he miraculously turned up, alive but exhausted by deprivation and hundreds of kilometers of walking. As war intensified, so did her tolerance for adversity. Some years later, therefore, when combatants took her mother away, I imagine she mustered the same stoicism which today is so ingrained in her character. Fortunately, after being forced to transport supplies and guide the rebels through the mountains, her mother returned. After such a “childhood,” the prospect of moving to a safe, stable place was a dream rather than a source of anguish for the girl.

I often think that this narrative could be that of a modern-day Syrian girl escaping civil war for Europe’s shores. However, it is not. It is the story of what precipitated my mother’s arrival in New York City in 1951 from Greece, which had been ravaged by World War II and a subsequent civil war. As we witness the largest global movement of displaced people and refugees ever recorded, her experiences weigh all the more heavily on my mind lately. The United Nations estimated an astonishing 60 million people were displaced by war and persecution last year—half of them children. Most end up in underdeveloped countries; Pakistan, Turkey and Iran currently host the largest numbers of refugees. There are marked differences between my mother’s circumstances and that of displaced people today. However, her story of exodus and relocation is, sadly, as universal as it is unique. Regardless of the era and the diversity of their ethnicities and conditions, displaced people leave their homes in search of fundamental freedoms: human dignity and an ability to exercise control over one’s destiny.

To think about my mother’s early life experiences saddens me a great deal. To realize that more than 60 years since her migration, more children in the world than ever before share similar and worse misfortunes, is wholly disheartening.

Perhaps most appalling is how quickly some elected officials, political candidates and pundits have seized on this global challenge as an opportunity to advance xenophobia.

It is hardly a new phenomenon, but the fact that it endures in 2015 and is fueled by attempts to conflate migration with terrorism is wholly objectionable. This discourse is dangerously nationalistic and deplorably opportunistic at a time when international awareness and humility is crucial. In the words of Drago Štambuk, a Croatian poet and diplomat who witnessed the horrors of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, “If we are to survive in a shrinking world, we must expand our hearts.” This is indeed a moment when unity and imagination are required to devise visionary policies that alleviate historic levels of suffering. International cooperation is needed if we are to identify and prevent the circumstances that give rise to such global displacements in the future.
As she prepared for a landmark birthday in the days after Thanksgiving, my mother had a lot to be grateful for. Like many who left Europe during and after World War II, my mother’s life took a much more positive course. My hope this new year is that the 30 million displaced children around the world today have a similar fate.

Elaine Papoulias is the Executive Director of the Harvard University Center for European Studies.

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